Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker had just closed all bars and restaurants to dine-in traffic in mid-March when University of Chicago Law School student Jennifer Bisgaier opened her email to find a request from Lect. Amy Hermalik.
With the coronavirus pandemic straining local businesses, Hermalik wanted to help drive traffic to Chicago-area stores that were offering online shopping, curbside pickup, and delivery for food and other essentials. To build a website, Hermalik needed volunteers.
“It was obvious there was going to be a massive disruption,” recalled Hermalik, the associate director of the Law School’s Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship. “People were not going to be out and shopping as much, and they would be looking for certain items that they could no longer find, and it just struck me as the perfect opportunity for us to highlight all of these incredible small businesses.”
Bisgaier isn’t even a part of the IJ clinic, but she had taken Hermalik’s Winter Quarter seminar on segregation in Chicago. As she read Hermalik’s email in her Hyde Park apartment, she knew she wanted to help. Along with three other students, Bisgaier helped create Shop in Place Chicago, a website that makes it easy for Chicagoans to purchase food, soap, board games, books and much more from small local businesses. The site includes verified information about hundreds of shops and restaurants and is searchable by neighborhood and business type.
Three additional IJ students focused on creating information sheets for small businesses that explained issues such as small business loans, unemployment benefits, tax deferral programs and the federal Families First Act.
“It was a relief to be able to do something concrete to help out,” said Bisgaier, a third-year law student. “It gave me a chance to forget about my own concerns and have a larger effect on people who are truly struggling in this city.”
The students on the two projects worked throughout their two-week spring break, with Hermalik and IJ Clinic director Beth Kregor reviewing memos, offering guidance and supervising progress. Bisgaier and the rest of the website team—second-years Kurt Cronican, Erica Zhao and Michaela Mapes—came up with categories of items people might need and began reaching out to local stores to find out what they planned to offer. They placed a special emphasis on businesses in low-income communities, such as Englewood, Back of the Yards and Chatham.